17 January 2012

The Soviet Kommunalka

Kira Varvanina
A Room in Between
   The fact that the English word “private” is not easily translated into Russian can be explained by the word's ambiguity. On one hand, it implies any entity that is not run by the government, which explains its derogative meaning during the Soviet regime. On the other, the term carries individual and confidential connotations and is simply substituted in Russian with “personal”.  As a result, in Soviet terms, private space is not owned by an individual but is considered national. In many ways this explains the bizarre fusion of private and public worlds in the everyday Soviet lives. In this essay I attempt to look at the influences of communal living arrangements on the tightly intertwined realms of national and individual identities during the USSR era.
Throughout the first years of the Soviet Regime, much of the working class was relocated to urban centers and colonized in cramped kingdoms of "kommunalkas"— large flats that once belonged to the Tsarist ninetieth century bourgeoisie. They were later redistributed among the working class, often leaving as many as fifty people co-existing in ten living rooms, one large kitchen, two water closets and a bathroom. Even though these apartments were similar to dormitories, where sharing of public space was part of everyday life, kommunalkas were permanent places where inhabitants could have lived their entire lives.
    While the name “kommunalka” is a vernacular short form for a communal apartment, the long mazes had little in common with the Western flat. Firstly, the residents were placed there by the state, which resulted in a diverse and forced social structure of these quarters. Secondly, there was a clear division between what “belonged”  to an individual and what “belonged” to nobody (in other words, public). Living and sharing the “national territory” of kommunalka resulted in constant clashes between neighbours and often developed into comical settings. For example, because there were only two water closets shared by numerous inhabitants, it was common to own and carry around one’s personal toilet seat. This seat would have its own hanging place in the safety of a family room.
The original grand rooms of nineteenth century bourgeoisie apartments and smaller cramped family “corners” in kommunalka had very little, if anything, in common. Divided numerously into smaller spaces, what was often inhabited by entire families, many rooms were narrow. High ceilings, chandelier cords hanging unpretentiously in the corner and disproportionately large windows were the only traces of the building’s former use and grandeur. The lack of space made every corner of the room valuable for potential functionality. A window often served as storage for food and the ceiling would house a clothes line. Consequently, the quality of Soviet life was often measured in cubic meters — the fact that generally defined individual desires and needs.  Curiously enough, even within one’s personal space, one could not necessarily count on privacy. Proximity of neighbors and lack of personal space made kommunalka’s environment transparent to the views of cohabitants and altered the sense of personal confidentiality. 
The communal spaces, however, were true manifestations of the individual within the realm of national and social. Accompanied by rules, public settings carried a sense of the impersonal and ownerless.   Here the theatre of life, so often despised for its lack of humanity, was played out by common Soviet people. Although each family owned part of a stove , a table and a cabinet, the kitchen was often in a state of war for territory. This was not a space for a peaceful dinner or other functions associated with a home, but a place where one would line up to wash the dishes, argue about the electricity bills or discuss communal matters. Bathroom had its own schedule as well. Imagine numerous washing machines and drying clothes illuminated by a steamy, stifling incandescent lamp. Inhabiting shared environments tested the extent of human compassion and defined one's consciousness within the society. 
Living with strangers was not an easy task, considering that it could potentially last a lifetime. Especially in the first years of USSR, individual idiosyncrasies, those that distinguished persons from each other, were not only judged and discouraged within the public atmosphere, but most significantly, scrutinized within one’s home. During this time the meaning of the word “private” gained a negative connotation. Being exposed to the eyes of the state and neighbours resulted in the lost sense of personal identity within the greater Soviet population. The living conditions during these years depicted a simple truth – what was humane and personal was replaced in favour of the national.
Perhaps the picture described above will seem gloomy to most, but that is not my intention.  The sketch was an attempt to show the distinction and, most importantly, coexistence of a national consciousness and conditions of individual identity within the structure of communal living. Of course, the aspects of collective life were not limited to negative insights, where war and argument constantly preoccupied tenants. On the contrary, the kommunalka was, and still remains, a diverse and fascinating environment, where endless personal stories are intertwined with the stories of old and new generations and both the past and present histories of Russia. 

Kira Varvanina has Master of Architecture degree from Carleton University and is currently an independent installation artist based in Toronto. In her work Kira explores spatial transformations by means of technology and interactivity.  Kira Varvanina and Edward Lin work together as Studio 1:1.  www.studio1to1.ca

Kira Varvanina  'The Soviet Kommunalka.'  On Site review, no. 25 Spring 2010
©Kira Varvanina and On Site review

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